HARTFORD— It’s been difficult for the UConn men’s basketball team to put away mid-major opponents over the past few years. Single-digit wins and overtime nail-biters against the Columbias and the Monmouths of the world became the norm.
But it’s not like that with Dan Hurley at the helm. He’s made sure that the team never gets complacent—to the point where he almost ruined their Thanksgiving.
“My mindset is that I coach these guys so hard coming into these games that I borderline ruined Thanksgiving for everybody,” Hurley said. “You gotta keep them on edge, because there’s such a tendency to relax. We’ve done nothing the last couple years, we’ve done nothing this season to warrant us overlooking anybody.”
It wasn’t all perfect, but the Huskies once again put on a display of offensive prowess in their 91-66 rout of New Hampshire at the XL Center Saturday afternoon.
The entirety of the starting five scored in double-digits, with Josh Carlton and Jalen Adams leading the pack with 17 points. Christian Vital recorded his first double-double of the season, netting 14 points and grabbing 10 rebounds.
“I think everybody has a lot of confidence, especially our point guards,” Adams said. “We know that [Hurley] is not really trying to make us run play after play… we know just to spread the defense out, and then a couple passes to get the ball moving side-to-side, then he just wants us attacking downhill. He doesn’t want us doing anything relaxed, everything’s just attack, attack, attack.”
The attack strategy has certainly paid off on both ends—UConn shot 55.9 percent in the first half and finished at 52.3 percent, utilizing their pressure defense to get stops and create more on offense. Tyler Polley, a usually quiet character, scored 12 for his third double-digit point performance of the season. Hurley said he’s on the uptrend, and his teammates have seen his confidence grow.
“You can see how he’s just confident to make and take those 3s. He’s a really good shooter, a lot of people don’t know that,” Vital said of Polley. “The fact that he’s starting in this lineup and contributing just shows the type of work ethic that he has and the mindset he has… he’s showing a lot more emotion out there, getting the and-1 and screaming, we want that from Tyler.”
It took the Huskies a little while to get going. The score was close through the first eight minutes, but a Christian Vital three-point play got UConn over the double-digit lead threshold. A few possessions later, Alterique Gilbert sunk a 3-pointer to put UConn up 21-10 with 11:50 to go.
The Huskies’ relentlessness gave them the momentum they needed in the first half to pull away. After Vital missed a 3-pointer, Adams came flying from the key and tipped the ball back in to give UConn a 35-23 lead with 5:09 to go. They ended the half up by 19.
“It’s more just locking in defensively,” Adams said of the team’s success against mid-major opponents this season. “I think just ramping up the pressure on defense really frustrates teams, so I think that’s really the main thing that’s getting us these wins—we’re getting stops. We know we’re gonna score the ball, we have a pretty good offensive scheme, a bunch of guys who can create and score at any time.”
UConn never let their lead get any smaller than 16 in the second half, but Hurley was set on extending their lead to at least 30. That never happened, partially because the defense, while effective, still tends to take some possessions off.
“I really liked how we guarded early… we guarded responsibly and with integrity. But I just felt like we had too many give-away possessions, like where we’re just mentally shut down,” Hurley said. “We either played really good defense or we gave up an embarrassing basket, which is very frustrating at times.”
As the Huskies gear up to face more formidable opponents like Arizona, Florida State and Villanova, the importance of these games becomes magnified. But UConn, Hurley said, is just doing what they’re supposed to do.
“These types of games, when you have a better team, that’s what you’re supposed to do,” Hurley said. “We haven’t done anything that we weren’t supposed to do today, or against Morehead, or against Cornell.”
Sid Wilson returns
Sidney Wilson, who was suspended at the beginning of the year for violating university policy, is now eligible for play and will be reinstated immediately. He will be active for UConn’s next game against UMass-Lowell, but his spot in the starting lineup isn’t guaranteed.
“Sid’s gonna have to earn his minutes in practice here… we do have depth and he’s gotta carve out minutes and opportunities for himself in practice,” Hurley said. “He’s going to have to kick Tyler’s butt, get after these guards and fight his way onto the court.”